With the recent headlines about COVID-19, polio and monkeypox, I have been in denial about the fact that yet another virus — influenza — will soon be upon us. Flu activity tends to ramp up starting in October, although the virus has already been circulating this month in Texas, New Mexico, Delaware and Georgia.
The Southern Hemisphere has seen a lot of flu this year — and that may not bode well for us up north. “I do think it’s going to be a worse year than we’ve seen in the last few years,” said Dr. Bessey Geevarghese, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.
This year may be worse in part because COVID-19 restrictions — which can also prevent the spread of the flu — have loosened and because people may travel more this fall and winter than they did over the past two years. Geevarghese also added that because flu seasons have been so mild over the past few years, many people in the United States may be more susceptible this year because their immune systems haven’t been exposed to the flu virus in a while.
Here’s what you can do to stay healthy.
Get a flu vaccine.
It’s too early to tell how effective the flu vaccine will be this year, said Dr. Jeff Kwong, an infectious disease physician with the University of Toronto’s Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases. But Geevarghese pointed out that even when the vaccine does not match well against circulating flu viruses, it still protects people against serious illness and complications.
A 2017 study found that the flu vaccine reduced the risk of hospitalization in people between the ages of 18-64 by 51% and in adults 65 and older by 37% across five flu seasons. A 2020 study also found that, among children, flu vaccination reduced the chance of flu-related hospitalization by 41% and reduced the risk of flu-related emergency room visits by 51% during the 2018-19 flu season.
If you have children, keep in mind that many who are 2 or older are eligible for the nasal spray flu vaccine, which doesn’t require a needle stick and should work just as well as the shot, Geevarghese said. Children between 6 months and 8 years old who are getting the flu vaccine for the first time, or who have only ever received one flu vaccine dose, should get two doses of the flu vaccine this year, she added.
Even if you aren’t very worried about flu complications for yourself or your child, remember that vaccination “will also protect the people around you,” Geevarghese said.
Consider getting a COVID-19 booster and flu shot at the same time.
Last week, Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, urged those who are eligible to get the new COVID-19 booster immediately, along with their flu shot. “You can get both your flu shot and COVID shot at the same time,” he said. “It’s actually a good idea.”
Experts agree that it is safe to get your COVID-19 booster and flu shot simultaneously — and that the convenience of getting them together may help to get more shots in arms, which will keep the population healthier, said Jennifer Nuzzo, a public health researcher and director of the Pandemic Center at the Brown University School of Public Health. But she noted that people who get the vaccines at the same time could experience more side effects, such as sore arms, headache and fatigue, which tend to be mild.
Kwong said people at higher risk for flu complications, including those who are pregnant, 65 or older or who have conditions like asthma, heart disease or diabetes, may want to get their flu vaccine as soon as possible. People living in parts of the U.S. that already have moderate or high flu activity, like Texas, New Mexico, Delaware and Georgia, should get vaccinated as soon as possible.
For optimal protection, though, some people may want to wait.
If you aren’t at high risk for complications, and flu activity is low where you live, and if you are the type of person who likes to optimize your flu protection, waiting another month or two could be a wise choice, the experts I spoke with said. Nuzzo said she usually gets her flu shot in October, while Kwong said he often waits until November.
Waiting can make sense because people are more likely to encounter the flu virus in the winter rather than in the early fall — and the protection afforded by the flu vaccine wanes over time, said Emily Martin, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
That said, the vaccine may still partially protect you after seven or eight months, Martin said. So don’t fret if you got your vaccine already. Getting the flu vaccine early is better than not getting it at all, she added.
Wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces, and wash your hands regularly.
Even if the flu isn’t yet spreading where you live, experts recommend wearing a mask in crowded indoor spaces. “Masking helps reduce the spread of a lot of respiratory viruses, not just flu,” Martin explained, and in the early fall there can be 20 or more viruses circulating because of back-to-school spread, she said.
Kwong recommended wearing high-quality, well-fitting masks, such as N95s, KN95s or KF94s. If that’s not possible, surgical masks are more protective than cloth masks, but cloth is better than nothing at all, he said.
Regular hand washing will also reduce your risk of getting sick, Kwong said, because many viruses — including influenza — are spread through contact with contaminated surfaces. Sick people can leave viruses behind on doorknobs, handles and other commonly touched surfaces, which can transfer to your hands — and then to your nose and mouth.
Understand what to do if you feel sick.
Because symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar — both can include runny nose, cough, fever, fatigue, body aches or headache — Nuzzo recommended stocking up on rapid COVID-19 tests so you can follow COVID-19 isolation guidelines if you’re positive and ask your doctor if you’re eligible for treatments like Paxlovid.
It may be worthwhile to get a flu test at the doctor, too, she said, because if you’re diagnosed within the first few days of symptoms, antiviral drugs may help to minimize your symptoms and even shorten the course of illness.
No matter what virus you have, if you feel sick, it’s important to stay home if possible, Martin said. “If your nose is running, and you’re coughing, and you’re all congested, try to limit your activities and your exposures to others,” she said.
Although it’s stressful to think about yet another virus to avoid this fall and winter, the upside is that the same steps we’ve taken to prevent COVID-19 also prevent the spread of the flu.
You can reduce your risk of the flu by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask and washing your hands — and none of these strategies, thankfully, are difficult to do.